White pacifism and art addressing indigenous trauma
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Kent Monkman recently posted images of a newer painting [CW: Sexual Violence] that has prompted me to reflect on how artists depict violence, white pacifism, and my ambivalent feelings about this artwork and those subjects. I am curious how artists communicate emotions that stem from harm and how their work then functions. I’ll preface this by saying I am less interested in questioning how people should express their anger at the continued existence of colonial violence and institutional systems of oppression as that can easily lead to gaslighting, and instead, I wonder how we define harm and empathy and what potential they might have as artistic strategies.
The painting was posted as a series of details on Instagram and had viewers flip through them, establishing a narrative that builds curiosity as we encounter a group of indigenous women laughing and smiling in the first two images. I’ll admit I was fond of what I was seeing, it offered an alternative to the photos of murdered and missing indigenous women I am accustomed to encountering and I was eager to find out what was eliciting such joy. The third image was different, featuring six of Canada’s previous prime ministers including Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau, with the men clutching each other and looking worried by whatever event was taking place. The fourth detail disrupts the white men and their monochromatic suits by taking us back to the joyous women with their bright smiles and beaming outfits of various colours. Next we finally encounter Miss Chief Eagle Testickle herself who is holding up a small red sculpture of hands praying. But this object doesn’t seem to be what is holding people’s attention, it’s something lower and in the final image we find out what is entertaining the crowd: Justin Trudeau is being held down on his hands and knees with his pants lowered–the red sculpture is revealed to be a butt plug intended to be inserted into his ass.
This conclusion was not surprising, I was aware of what to expect as I was directed to the post by someone else’s Instagram story outlining that it featured sexual violence, and to that extent I am thankful I had the warning. Sexual violence is a subject I have difficulty with because it is evokes discomfort and I’m never quite sure what will be triggering. But it is something that I want to talk about so I can grapple with the hard questions about my own healing and complacency. This seems like a good opportunity to do that and think about artwork that employs sexual violence to discuss trauma.
I am cautious of violence as an artist in my own work and want to carry that forward in any future activism. I am cautious because I was brought up to express anger in harmful and dangerous ways, ways that can easily alienate or hurt the people I want to be an ally for and who deserve to feel safe. Mimicking the dominating and hostile presence that has contributed to other people's pain would be counterproductive and a gross example of my own entitlement to spaces that are not intended to help me personally. But pacifism is not perfect and white pacifism in particular often dismisses the valid sensations of rage and despair that people of colour experience as their trauma is manufactured to benefit colonial institutions and maintain white power. Sometimes peace simply isn’t enough and being calm is not possible and that’s okay. It is important for white allies like myself to ask how our pacifism can be contributing to silencing communities of colour and maintaining the harmful systems responsible for their pain.
What I am concerned about is how particular forms of harm can be appropriated to convey negative emotions and how that is often at the expense of other communities, especially communities whose oppression may be less prominent in our daily lives or a priority in our activism. Monkman’s painting is an interesting example that exposes some of the major issues that discourses surrounding sexual violence work to address while offering important parallels acknowledging the ongoing damage and genocide colonialism is committing against indigenous communities in Canada.
Humiliation is a prominent component of the narrative in this painting as Trudeau, a metaphor for the Canadian federal government, is now in the position of being violated much like the land and water systems pipelines continue to decimate and pollute across the country. That shame is then magnified by the crowd who is satisfied and enjoying the spectacle, the impending assault being framed as inevitable, justified, and entertaining. It is this framing that feels dangerous as humiliation is one of the foundations of sexual violence–it is about power and making it clear that someone has the ability to take yours away. The image renders the assault into a consequence for injustice, one that feels like it avoids asking how we all contribute to the dangerous cycle of sexual violence by validating it in this circumstance. Messages like the scenario in this painting can risk mirroring how sexual violence is framed vindictively by victim-blaming culture and how women can become tokens for bolstering that shame.
Indigenous women experience high rates of sexual violence, an issue furthered by pipeline development as the men working on these projects contribute to higher rates of harm in the communities nearby. With this in mind the role of the women in the painting is interesting as a community that frequently experiences this particular form of trauma is transformed into one that celebrates its execution, albeit on the white male figurehead of the federal government that is clearly uninterested in supporting indigenous communities and protecting their resources and people. A question this has raised for me is what risks and opportunities lie in narratives of vindication or justice, especially ones that utilize depictions of violence against perpetrators? In what ways does this foster a sense of catharsis or solidarity for survivors and their loved ones? Simultaneously, does it potentially fuel harmful stereotypes that enable the endurance of that same violence?
I have to reflect on what bothered me so much about this work. Is it because of how it contributes to a problematic landscape surrounding sexual violence and its relationship with gender, justice, and communities? Or are those feelings of discomfort because there is a white male body being violated which is unlike the common instances I encounter that feature women of colour in that position? I imagine it is a combination of both, a result of my interest in how art intersects with trauma, especially sexual violence and queerness, as well as my own projection as a white man with Trudeau as a figure. The metaphor of Canada’s current prime minister is harder for me to come to terms with because of our similarities in identity and my own history with sexual assault, however, that is my own challenge to navigate.
I am not condemning the painting or the important message it carries for empowering indigenous women and recognizing the role they have played in protecting the land and their people. It is a powerful image in its emphasis on the joy and solidarity these women embody by highlighting the communities they have responsibly cared for and nurtured. Additionally, it demands accountability for Canada’s ongoing colonial genocide and hatred of indigenous peoples. However, I am curious what relationships survivors of sexual violence will form with this painting and how we might talk about trauma and injustice in the future. Will sexual assault continue to be our primary metaphor for other conversations about abuse and violation? How do we responsibly navigate definitions of justice and harm as artists and activists with empathy in mind? Or is that an unfair expectation, especially on artists of colour who have repeatedly been asked to restrain their frustration? What does a critique of these systems of oppression, including the generations of trauma they have inflicted, look like if bodies are no longer the metaphor for their execution? How would rendering those bodies absent mimic the colonial practices that have intended to reshape history in their favour by painting white men as heroes? And lastly, does the fact that these thoughts are aroused by aggravating privilege emphasize that artworks like these are necessary for change?